For years after his honorable discharge in 1946, Russell Kirk suffered a recurrent nightmare, to the effect that his discharge had been a clerical error; that he was summoned back to Dugway Valley; and there, beside his grim safe, stuffed with deadly secret documents, he would labor until he shuffled off this mortal coil…

In 1942 Russell Kirk was inducted into the Army and transported to the Great Salt Lake Desert. This memoir of army life seventy-five years ago is extracted from his autobiography, The Sword of Imagination. After being employed for some months in the aircraft engine building of the Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, young Russell Kirk, B.A., M.A., abruptly became a private in the Chemical Warfare Service. Below, in the third person, Dr. Kirk recollects some of his experiences when he was stationed in the abomination of desolation.

At the induction center, a disused loft opposite the Fort Street Railroad Station (since demolished) in Detroit, the conscript Kirk, along with hundreds of other conscripts, was made to strip and to undergo various inspections. Presently, naked, he came to the table at which literacy was tested.

“Do you think you could read a part of this newspaper?” inquired a clothed inspector, holding up a copy of that day’s Detroit News.

“I believe so,” Kirk answered.

 “All right, you pass: move on.”

In the fullness of time, Kirk arrived at the counter where one’s sanity and normality were ascertained. “Do you ever go out with girls?” the psychological inspector demanded.

“Occasionally,” Kirk ventured.

“All right, you pass: move on.”

From this naked theater of the absurd, Kirk and a great many other draftees were transported by rail to Camp Custer (since abolished), in south central Michigan, where they all were outfitted, staggering  to barracks under the weight of mattresses and crammed barracks-bags. Kirk, having received no instructions, had no notion of what he was supposed to be doing; he merely remained in his theater-of-operations barracks when a bugle summoned others to various roll calls and chores. Presently the bugle sounded “lights out,” and Kirk, like his barracks-mates, crept obediently into his cot.

Before Kirk could sink into sleep, heavy boots tramped up the stairs to the second floor, bam bam bam; and a stentorian voice roared in the darkness, “I’m CORPORAL POND!”

The conscripts trembled under their covers: clearly this was some great power at Camp Custer. The voice of Ozymandias—look on my works, ye mighty, and despair—sounded again:

“I’m Corporal Pond!” (One could glimpse at the door only a very dim figure, squat and stern. A certain slurring of his words suggested that Corporal Pond had been imbibing spirits of a sort not permitted on military posts.) “I’m Corporal Pond! I’m in charge here! These are my barracks, understand that? There are no bedbugs here! And if there are, tell Me! Me, Corporal Pond!”

The squat omnipotent figure tramped most heavily back down the stairs; and at length the humble new private soldiers slumbered.

The next day, Kirk attended a lecture by a real live officer, a lieutenant, the theme of which was that the ankle-high boots issued to the recruits might seem odd at first; but that he, the lieutenant, had come to find them very comfortable indeed, and so intended to wear such boots for the rest of his life. This lecture, and subsequent personal experience, converted Kirk to the lieutenant’s case for boots, which he was to find prudent footwear in a desert swarming with rattlesnakes; and indeed Kirk has worn such boots, British ones usually, ever since that thoughtful military admonition at Camp Custer.

Russell Kirk, M.A., was not permitted to linger at Camp Custer. With a hundred other neophytes, he was handed orders to proceed to Fort Douglas, Utah, the very day of the boot-lecture; and off they went westward by a crowded train. It was rumored that the lot of them were assigned for duty to the Chemical Warfare Service. Some of the barracks-bags bore the mysterious stenciled letters HTS. “That means Human Target Squad,” Kirk, tongue in cheek, informed several comrades. Believing him, some of them were near to tears.

The journey across the Plains States, once denominated the Great American Desert, went on day and night—Kirk’s first westward expedition. “It seems only last week we went aboard this train,” one wag murmured. At North Platte, Nebraska, kindly women in the railway station gave the new soldiery lemonade, sandwiches, and pieces of cake. After a long while, the foothills of the Rockies loomed up. And in the fullness of time, their train came down from the Wasatch upon Salt Lake City, an amazing sight, with streams of fresh water running in its gutters.

At the station, without being granted time to stretch their legs – for this was the summer of 1942, with a war being fought desperately on the far side of either ocean—the recruits were hurried into buses to be trundled up the mountain bench to Fort Douglas—or so they fancied. But no! They were being transported elsewhere. Leaving behind handsome Salt Lake City, the convoy made its way across barrens south of the Great Salt Lake, west-southwestward, thirty-five interminable miles, to the plain sunbaked town of Tooele, where an ordnance depot had been established. By this time the conscripts had ascertained that they would end at a mysterious installation called Dugway (some said Dogway) Proving Ground. Was that at Tooele, on the edge of savagery?

Nay, not so. Straight through little Tooele the convoy proceeded, toward the real desert, the Great Salt Lake Desert, through arid uplands inhabited by a few invisible Indians. Now more mountains loomed before the rookie soldiers—sharp barren dead mountains, with no touch of green, rising defiant from the desert floor. Gradually the buses ascended, making their way through gaunt Skull Valley to a low pass where a sentry-post of sorts had been established: three soldiers, clearly of Mexican stock, stared languidly at the passing buses. The trio held rifles, the first weapons seen by the conscripts in the convoy; the merciless sun glinted upon those guns. As the convoy left the sentry-post behind, a tall saturnine grumbler-conscript muttered in relief, “I knew that spot couldn’t be Dugway. The army wouldn’t dump us in a hole like that, where the only ones who can stand it are Mexicans.”

He was mistaken: The convoy now was departing from Skull Valley, to enter Dugway Valley, which desolation normally had no human population whatsoever. After more miles of this high desert, quite treeless, the buses came to great sand-dunes. Perched upon these dunes were a few theater-of-operations barracks. This was Dugway Proving Ground, some ninety miles distant from Salt Lake City and a long way from the nearest rancher—old Dan Orr, of the splendid oldfangled leather riding-breeches, the patriarch of Skull Valley. Once upon a time, a few naked Gosiutes may have tried to survive in Dugway Valley; if so, those Indians had left no memorials.

Of Kirk’s four years in the army, three would be spent here near the heart of the Great Salt Lake Desert—the famous Bonneville salt flats sprawling a few miles to the west of the Dugway camp—surely one of the most desolate and most salubrious spots in all the world. While millions of men were slaughtering one another upon the Ukrainian steppes or in the Papuan jungles, Kirk lay enchanted, like Merlin in the oak, amidst a desert so long dead that it seemed nothing was permitted to die there any longer. Occasionally, Kirk might be blistered by mustard gas or temporarily choked by phosgene, a mere small mishap; but such diversions aside, the Great Salt Desert he found a wholesome place for body and soul—once the initial shock of its emptiness diminished.

Dugway Proving Ground was then, and is today, the Chemical Warfare Service’s vast experiment-field. Aside from conventional spraying of mustard or phosgene gases on goats, to see if such toxic agents would vex the creatures, Dugway became the center for testing two huge deadly experiments: the development of the gel bomb, and the beginnings of bacteriological warfare. Kirk being the only enlisted man at Dugway Proving Ground who possessed a master’s degree, and he being an experienced typist, he found himself assigned to duty as recorder and custodian of classified documents—some of them “top secret” indeed. Had Germany and Japan won the war, Kirk might have been put on trial as a war criminal.

On the salt flats the CWS built accurate replicas of German and Japanese villages, to scale and of suitable materials, the houses completely furnished. Dugway Proving Ground possessed an airplane, dispatched now and again to drop gel incendiary bombs upon those villages, in hope they might burn. They did. After one holocaust, the villages were rebuilt and refurbished, and then again bombed with gel; this went on and on, month after month. Having been thus thoroughly tested, the gel bomb was employed very near the end of the war in Europe, to wipe out Dresden and its population, the air being sucked out of Silesian lungs while their dwellings were incinerated. This had been a war to vindicate the democratic and humanitarian way of life.

Away to the west, towering 2,600 feet above the dead level of the salt flats, rose up the solitary splendor of Granite Peak, where antelope lingered. Kirk climbed that mountain once in company with an experienced mountain man, Werner Schnackenberg, but very nearly came down dead, head over heels, from a slippery shelf of obsidian. During the latter part of Kirk’s duty in Dugway, the CWS established at Granite Peak a testing-ground for “germ warfare,” a perilous undertaking for which perfect isolation was required. Nevertheless, so far as Kirk knew, nobody died at Granite Peak, or from consequences of experimenting there; and in the toxic gas area nearer Dugway camp, only one elderly civilian employee perished—from walking through a cloud of phosgene without wearing his gas-mask.

The healthiness of the high desert notwithstanding, soldiers did die at Dugway, though not from gases or microbes. (Some, true, were wretchedly burned by mustard gas, though not fatally.) Desert solitude and monotony provoked two or three suicides, even though weekend passes to Salt Lake City offered relief. The ancient fat contract-surgeon died, apparently of the weight of years—he whose hand trembled so alarmingly as he was about to perform injections; he who had instructed the newly-arrived conscripts that they need not fear injury to their lungs during sandstorms, because “the harm is done by silica, and there is no silica in our sand here at Dugway.” Old Master-Sergeant Emory died—the amiable and efficient veteran who had never applied for weekend passes, lest he become drunken and so forfeit his post as top. But Technician Fourth Grade Kirk (as he soon became) never felt healthier.

So long as the detachment at Dugway remained small in numbers, it kept a certain homeliness, they being kind one to another, out of a common pity; but before long, the American lust for aggrandizement operating, a thousand men were crowded into barracks and were kept busy at occupations rather like taking in one another’s washing. Also Dugway acquired a company of Italian prisoners of war, and another company of German prisoners. Kirk applied to teach them English, but permission was denied by Dugway’s commanding officer.

Large dunes surrounded the camp. When he had leisure, which was much of the time, Kirk sat upon the sand reading. That strange mountain the Camel’s Back stared down at him; it was a thing drowned and then washed up from the ocean-bed of time, for on its sides showed the successive bench-marks of seas that dried a million years past. If Kirk sank into sleep—an easy thing to do in the sun, for the nearest tree, a scrubby juniper, was miles distant—little lizards slid across his face; he opened his eyes cautiously to see whether the thing might be a rattler, for one species thereof abounded amidst the sage-brush. He stared across the salt and the alkali, where not even snakes, lizards, and rabbits lived, into Nevada on the horizon. This was a region almost without a history: a few naked Gosiutes had lurked on its fringes, a hundred years gone, and Jed Smith had staggered alone across its waterless expanse, and in the forties a few shepherds with their flocks occasionally made their way around it; that was all, except for some gold-mining, long ago abandoned, on the desert’s Nevada side. An Air Force base now was situated on the Nevada side of the salt flats, near Wendover. Once, while Dugway men were laying out targets on their territory, bombers from Nevada came over; and whether by mistake or by malice aforethought, dropped bombs on the Dugway targets; the Dugway CWS personnel, in jeeps and command cars, scurried away to safety. Then Dugway’s colonel telephoned his counterpart at the air base and threatened to have Dugway’s sole bomber retaliate with mustard or phosgene, were such a blunder to occur a second time. At our own Gehenna, we committed our atrocities in the abstract, as if they were childish games. In Germany and Japan, it would be otherwise.

Afoot or in jeep or command-car, with comrades, Kirk explored the desert wilderness. There occurred expeditions to the High Uintas, America’s only mountain range running east and west, away up at the top of Utah; there, one night, a wildcat quite unacquainted with man sat on Kirk in his sleeping-bag, perhaps speculating on whether the strange long creature might be edible; there for a little while Kirk, quite alone, contrived to lose himself in a ravine choked with fallen timbers, and extricated himself only by careful orientation of his compass.

His longest expedition, tramping and hitch-hiking in company with another Dugway soldier, Alfred Cutler (by coincidence also from Plymouth, Michigan), took him all the way to Hanksville and back again by a different route—remote Hanksville, once a Mormon co-hab settlement, at the time of Kirk’s visit a hamlet, wondrously isolated, between the towering Capitol Reef and the Green River country. In those days it was a place of arcadian simplicity; soon it would swell to a boom-town with huge highways leading to it, for uranium had been discovered nearby.

At the shrunken village of Torrey, a far cry from Dugway, Kirk and Cutler were given a ride in the back of a pick-up truck, driven by a Basque shepherd called Banjo, whose speech suffered from some impediment, compensated for by his geniality. His Anglo wife and her sixteen-year-old son were in the cab beside Banjo.

As they pulled away from Torrey into the Capital Reef National Monument, Kirk looked upon a tremendous expanse of wild country, quite different from the Utah mountains through which the two soldiers had passed earlier. On their right, (they looking over the truck’s tailboard) loomed up the Capitol Reef; on their left, the inaccessible desolation of the Aquarius Plateau. One mighty butte rose behind another, stretching away in terrible lifelessness to the horizon. They saw tremendous spires and towers, and balancing rocks, and windows in the cliffs of dull reds and greens.

Snow fell lightly as they jogged into the Capitol Wash, a fantastic wild prospect, a canyon fourteen feet wide or narrower, its sheer walls rising as much as eighteen hundred feet above, the rock worn smooth by water and wind. In this canyon rose the infant Dirty Devil river. Beyond the Wash they crossed a series of fords, there being no bridges—the violent floods of spring having taken out what bridges had been built at one time. Scattered clumps of low-growing rabbitbrush were the only life to be seen. The road now twisted among great blue-gray cones of what appeared to be volcanic ash, with immense jagged sandstone buttes for a background.

After more miles through the treeless and grassless Tophet of the Wayne Wonderland, with its hideous blue clay, their truck puffed up to Caineville, where the valley widened somewhat, and a few wretched cabins stood. Here Banjo and his wife invited the soldiers into their house for a meal. The building was flimsy; the fireplace, wretchedly constructed, threw little heat into the living-room, of which one wall only was papered—with newsprint. Mrs. Banjo, who smoked cigarettes incessantly, had been born here. On the living-room floor survived some fragments of linoleum that had been laid twenty years before.

Kirk and Cutler were presented to their hosts’ kith and kin and neighbors, who crowded into the living room to meet the strangers in uniform. These were awkward back-country people, warmhearted and desperately poor, some of them odd in appearance and manner, after a lifetime of such existence. One pretty girl appeared, and several merry little children.

At length the military guests were served dinner, along with the family; they shared five little sausage patties, a large bowl of tough string beans, preserved apricots, and bread without butter; they all drank coffee out of bowls. At this hamlet of Cainesville, life in the high desert must have been quite the same a century earlier.

They were within twenty-five miles of Hanksville, at the end of the world. Asserting that no vehicles would be going east on the Hanksville road that evening, Banjo and his family besought the soldiers to lodge with them that night; but Cutler and Kirk, having given their hosts some large chocolate bars in token of gratitude, tramped on down the road. Five miles east, they built a roaring fire of brush, to warm themselves while they waited for a ride; presently appeared a large truck, laden with food and gasoline for a road-building crew; they climbed in beside the driver.

Through dangerous washes and over loose sand they plunged into Blue Valley, a region of death, where the alkali gleamed white in the darkness. There once had stood the town of Blue Valley, or Giles; the ruins of the school and the chapel still stood, and some rotten trunks of fruit-trees were near the road. Not a soul remained; the valley’s heavy blue clay had won the battle over vainglorious mankind.

On through more washes, along the verge of deep arroyos, they won their way to Hanksville, an old settlement ringed about with cliffs of sandstone, the Dirty Devil entering through one gap in the cliffs, and flowing out through another gap. Nine families lived in the town—large extended Mormon families, Hanksville having been in the 1860s a major sanctuary for plural wives. The town had no store then, but possessed a ramshackle post office, a cafe, a decayed school, and a chapel of freestone. Standing in the dusty Main Street, Kirk wondered what manner of man first had ventured to settle in this spot, with desolation on every side? But the soil was very good, with plenty of clover for grazing, and bee-keeping thrived. The village’s houses, board-and-batten or log, were those of the early settlers. Kirk and Cutler lodged in a kind of converted woodshed, for fifty cents each.

To this settlement had resorted Butch Cassidy and his Wild Bunch, the last gang of horse-mounted rustlers and robbers in the United States; their strong-hold had been Robbers’ Roost, in the San Rafael Swell. Kirk asked a tall inhabitant of Hanksville in what direction Robbers’ Roost lay. “Out there somewhere, I guess,” said the man, his outstretched arm sweeping the horizon. Could it be that Hanksville folk still thought it imprudent to give strangers information about the Wild Bunch?

Next day the two soldiers made their way northward toward the town of Greenriver. They passed an abandoned ranch some thirty miles north of Hanksville, and a good ranch on the San Rafael river—otherwise, no sign of habitation along that vast stretch of territory, parallel with the pinnacles of the San Rafael Swell. Thirty hours after leaving Hanksville, the two wanderers were back at Dugway Proving Ground, having completed in a long weekend a tour of 700 miles through the wild heart of Utah—a feat their Dugway friends had thought impossible of attainment.

Never again will anyone make quite that trip; for uranium and vanadium ore, very soon after Kirk slept at Hanksville, would entice the highway engineers and the mining engineers to eastern Utah, and they would alter the face of things. Banjo and his wife were buried long ago, no doubt; and the affluent society had pushed their kind to the wall. As for the uranium mined near Hite, on the Colorado river—Hite, population one man, at the time of Kirk‘s expedition—why, that element, which two months earlier had effaced Hiroshima and Nagasaki, would raise up future Titans and Cyclopes.

Other Utah adventures came to pass: a wild jeep-ride with tipsy comrades at the top of the Wasatch, in deep snow; pistol-shooting at coyotes in the shadow of the Camel’s Back; near-drowning by a flash flood in an arroyo near the ghost town of Gold Hill. Good friendships were formed, but only one of them would endure into years of peace.

Kirk fancied himself miserable in the army, although he was efficient enough in his duties; for one thing, he was the only newcomer to Dugway, in his lot of recruits, who could perform the manual of arms smartly, that martial skill having been forced upon him at Michigan State by the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. When a film about the British victory at El Alamein in Libya was shown at Dugway, the enlisted men of the Proving Ground observed the similarity between the terrain of Libya and that of the Great Salt Lake Desert:

“This is the desert!” the film’s narrator commenced.

“Dugway!” groaned the Dugway audience.

“Sand, heat, thirst,” the narrator proceeded.

“Dugway!” shouted Kirk and his comrades.

“The Arabs say,” the solemn narrator went on, “that after three days here, a man may go mad.”

“Dugway!” the old Dugway hands roared.

Nevertheless, reading Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus on the sand dunes, Kirk was not a lunatic after three years in the Great Salt Lake Desert and one year in Florida’s swamps of the Withlacoochee Land Use Area. Yet for years after his honorable discharge in 1946, Kirk suffered a recurrent nightmare, to the effect that his discharge had been a clerical error; that he was summoned back to Dugway Valley; and there, beside his grim safe, stuffed with deadly secret documents, he would labor until he shuffled off this mortal coil.

Republished with the gracious permission from Modern Age (Spring 1993).

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email